Arnold D. Samlan
Jewish Educational Leader, South Florida

What the women’s tefillin exercise was really about

A few weeks back, traditional Jews across social media had a field day responding to a news story that Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan had a group of students who designed tefillin for women as part of a project. The project was not intended to deliberately tamper with a mitzva, a religious requirement, but was in a response to a challenge to reengineer something ancient. And the students did just that.

In truth, there was a sensitivity expressed by the students involved towards feminism as well as an embedded critique as to how traditional Judaism has viewed women. The mistake made by those who criticized the project was misunderstanding education today.

This project falls in the wonderful area between a few major ideas in education: Constructivist Education, a theory that we construct knowledge and imbue it with meaning based on our experiences; Co-Creating, in which students and teachers are partners in creating the curriculum and learning activities and the Maker Movement, in which learning takes place through the activity of creating “stuff”.

And those theories and practices were exactly what the students at Shenkar were asked to do: Create meaning-based knowledge, co-create a learning plan and make something that demonstrates learning. And they did just that.

The project was successful educationally. Students encountered the Jewish past and present and imagined what a Jewish future might be like. In so doing, they encountered the opposition of a conservative approach to religious life that suggests that tomorrow’s Judaism will look just like today’s. Or that the future needs to be limited by the past. The students clearly challenged those assumptions.

It was a great object lesson to us, as Jewish parents and educators. Are we challenging our children and students to imagine what tomorrow’s Judaism and Jewish community might look like. Gidi Grinstein, in his outstanding book, Flexigidity, suggests that one thing we know about the future is that Jews will be lighting Shabbat candles in it. But, what he doesn’t address is the fact that even Shabbat candles have changed over the years. In my childhood, it was mostly the women of the house who lit the candles. That looks different today when same-sex couples light candles, or when bachelors light candles, or when young girls are encouraged by some groups to light candles. So even within the sameness of a mitzva, the mitzva changes.

The same ideas that the students at Shenkar reached need to be expressed in today’s Jewish education: we need to not only challenge students to co-create and to build meaning in general science and math. We need to challenge them to create the Judaism and the Jewish community in which they will live in the future.

Our curriculum, whether in day schools, synagogues, summer camps, youth organizations or even at home, must include tools of building meaning (as well as building “stuff”). Today, we are educating kids towards a world and a Jewish community that may look little like today’s. And that means that we need to teach them tools, processes, creativity, empathy,and critical thinking even more than the content matter itself.

The students at Shenkar College took the challenge. Our schools, synagogues, summer camps, youth groups, and every place in which Jewish children are growing and learning, need to pose these challenges to them.

About the Author
Rabbi Arnie Samlan, Chief Jewish Education Officer of the Jewish Federation Broward County, Florida, Is a rabbi and Jewish educator whose work has impacted Jewish learners, community leaders and professionals across North America. All blog posts are his personal opinions and are not meant to reflect viewpoints of the Jewish Federation.
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